Supplemental Sunday - Ghoulardi & His Legacy in Cleveland Television
This is nowhere near the beginning of the age of the TV Horror Host. That year was 1954 and depending on whose camp you’re in, you lean toward either Vampira on the west coast or Zacherley on the east as being the first horror host. This distinction between the two hosts has another relevance in these proceedings though. Vampira’s show mainly consisted of gags in the interstitials while Zacherley’s humor was tied directly into whatever movie he was showing that week.
Nine years later…in Cleveland, Ohio, we’ll say that there emerged a middle ground.
Enter journeyman broadcaster Ernie Anderson.
Mind you, this isn’t even the start of late-night programming in Cleveland. Pete Myers would try his Mad Daddy schtick back in 1958, when the horror host craze was still pretty hot, but a combination of recklessness, restlessness and being out of sync with his audience would ensure that he would not be on airwaves long.
The funny thing is, Anderson had that same recklessness and restlessness. So why is it that anyone born from the 1950s on through at least the 80s in Northeast Ohio knows exactly who Ghoulardi is and why he’s so important to the television legacy in Cleveland, while any host prior to that is relegated to the obscurity file? Put simply, there was a bond between presenter and audience that had been lacking up to this point. Anderson understood his audience and was appreciated for that. He did this in a few ways.
1. Knowing when he had a stinker. – Most hosts prior to the rise of riffing shows such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a point to try and get you to stick around for the film by talking it up, much as you would expect a carnival barker to do so. Sure, the bearded lady might just have the fakest of beards taped on, but the barker was there to sucker you in anyway. Ghoulardi was upfront about his content. “GROUP! Tonight’s movie has so many holes in it, even the Swiss would be proud.” And he could dog the film relentlessly, sometimes even inserting himself in the picture, dropping in to help Flash Gordon out in telling him which way to escape Ming’s goons for example.
2. Knowing his audience. – While his most notable target was the Polish suburb of Parma (strangely enough named after a city in Italy…insert a certain ethnic joke there), Anderson also took aim at another favorite target, the Cleveland Indians, all with the help of director and reluctant co-star, Chuck Shodowski (we’ll circle back to him). But this wasn’t the mean humor of an outsider (even though Anderson actually was from Boston and not a local boy!) but the not so gentle ribbing of a Clevelander. Northeast Ohio natives are just as quick, if not quicker, than any outsider in pointing out the areas flaws: yes, we know the Cuyahoga River caught fire for three days, just as we know that the Browns still suck. [But when you say it, it sounds all negative. – Ed.] We’re all born to a legacy of self-deprecating humor, and while not a native, Ernie got it and was right there in step with it.
2a. Giving back to his audience. – The Ghoulardi All-Stars. Of course, on the set, it was all fun and games. But what if you could take those fun and games outside the studio and, more importantly, use it to help out local charities? Anderson, Shodowski and other WJW TV-8 personalities, such as my personal hero Dick Goddard, would play softball, basketball and other sports around the Northeast Ohio area against any team that would have them and the proceeds always went to charity, to give back to a community that continued to give him so much.
3. Nothing was out of bounds. – Yup, he made fun of his audience. We covered that. He also made fun of his employers. But there was so much more that would’ve gotten a lesser mortal fired. Beyond fired, hell, he should have had charges pressed against him for some of this! Now, not too surprising, especially for this time period, sure, there are stories of him running a little long at a nearby bar before realizing he was on the air…like…NOW! Yes, there’s the story of him riding his motorcycle into the offices of TV-8 after hours, leaving tire tracks in the lobby and in management’s offices. The one that blows my mind, if you’ll forgive the pun, are the stories of him setting off fireworks on-air. Some of these were harmless, but others…ho boy…sit down for this one. A local amateur fireworks maker sent him in what is typically called an M1000, essentially a quarter of a stick of dynamite. Director Shodowski right away didn’t like this and made a horrible, horrible mistake. As they were returning to air, he tells Anderson “Don’t you dare light that.”
Absolutely the wrong thing to say.
Sure enough, Ghoulardi lights it up. Studio glass bowed. The explosion temporarily deafens all present but only long enough for them to realize the set is on fire. As Chuck tells it, “We used every fire extinguisher in the place to keep from calling the fire department!” Why didn’t this get him fired? To be blunt, you don’t shoot the golden goose, and Anderson’s ratings were beating even more high-profile network shows such as The Tonight Show at the time!
What finally killed Ghoulardi? Many fingers point to Parma and the local government there, but that’s not the entire story. Sure, it was a factor, but not as big a one as people think. Yes, the city council was tired of being at the butt of a lot of jokes, but the actual Polish residents of Parma actually were having fun with the jokes and of good humor about it all. Was it maybe that Anderson’s antics were wearing thin? To some degree, after all, Ernie was rebellious at heart and just when he’d be corrected on one thing, he’d do something else. But the ratings were still there…so again, it comes back to that ‘not killing the golden goose’. So…who killed Ghoulardi? Personally, I think the first thing was overexposure. Yes, the charity work of the All-Stars factors into this, only slightly though, because that stuff he liked. But you had the Friday night Shock Theater, followed on Saturday afternoon by Masterpiece Theater (not what you think, more low brow such as the Three Stooges and the like) and then every weekday on Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy. This essentially gave Anderson/Ghoulardi one day off, Sunday, before once again having to don the fright wig. Mind you, this doesn’t include the announcer work he was doing for the station at the same time. And remember what I said earlier in the article? Restlessness. With all this work, Ghoulardi was starting to feel like a rut.
Not helping was the fact that his friend and collaborator, Tim Conway, had moved to Hollywood and met with great success. Thus, the second main factor, the lure of greater success. And it was certainly there. While he didn’t have any sort of acting chops due to poor memory and thus couldn’t learn lines, he would go on to what he’s most known for, being the voice of ABC throughout the 70s and 80s (say it with me now…the LOOOOOOOOVE Boat) and even still doing voice work in his final years during the 90s.
And so, in 1966, Ghoulardi was dead.
But this isn’t the end of the story, oh no, it’s only the beginning. Ernie Anderson’s short tenure as Ghoulardi would set a fire that would stay ablaze in Cleveland until at least 2007…and possibly beyond!
An heir was needed. Or heirs, as the evolution of Cleveland’s late night would take two distinct paths.
While many tried to copy Ghoulardi’s schtick, the successors to Ghoulardi’s show and time slot on Channel 8 would actually veer in a very different direction, going more the Vampira route and opting more for skits in the interstitials not necessarily related to the movie that was being shown. Bob Wells, the noontime and weekend meteorologist, decided to throw his hat in the ring, opting not to mimic Anderson’s work and go out there in the spirit of his already popular ‘Hoolihan the Weatherman’. And he did so with the best support he could have: Chuck Shodowski, who at this point was becoming well-known to the Cleveland audience under the name he’d earned through not only his co-star stints with Ghoulardi, but also his outings with the Ghoulardi All-Stars, Big Chuck. It was this fresh approach that gave rise to The Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show, that would take over Friday night hosting duties from 1966 all the way through 1979. Films were still rooted in the horror vein for the most part, but the gradual opening of other film libraries did allow for some non-horror material to seep in as well.
Having learned some lessons from Anderson’s tumultuous run, the big thing that really had to be addressed was Parma. To restate, the citizens there loved the humor and the good-natured jabs while the city big-wigs, not so much. Chuck, of Polish descent himself, found a solution. There was no need to name Parma directly, instead, simply mentioning “A Certain Ethnic…” would be enough. And it was. To drive the point home, the “Certain Ethnic Man” character was always sporting a hat, mustache, cigar and striped button-up sweater and to be EXTREMELY CLEAR, any time the character was given a name, it always ended in ‘-ski’. For example, in their send-up of the then popular Six-Million Dollar Man, The Certain Ethnic Six Dollar Man, the character is no longer Steve Austin, but Stan Auski. In these current times, the humor might trigger or offend viewed as visual interpretations of the standard ‘polack joke’, but not only coming from a Polish guy but a community with a rich Polish heritage, the jokes never got mean and always seemed to come from a place of affection.
It's from here we also have the emergence of repeating skits. The Certain Ethnic Man was not alone, as sketches featuring Soul Man (a mild-mannered reporter Ed Tarboosh takes his Soul Pills to change into the superhero Soul Man), Dr. Ben Crazy (based on Dickie Goodman’s novelty record and the popular 60s medical drama), Readings by Robert (????) and Loony Legends (references to popular stories with a Certain Ethnic twist).
After Bob Wells/Hoolihan stepped away, local jeweler and frequent guest star during the Houlihan days, John Rinaldi, would step in to fill the void as Lil John. These are the hosts I’m most familiar with having grown up with the Big Chuck & Lil John Show. Here, the movie selection was rather sweeping as this was when VCRs were starting to become widespread and as such, Hollywood still felt that the TV viewing markets were the best destination for their library titles as the Home Video industry slowly lifted off the launch pad. That being said, yes, special attention was still paid to horror films when they did emerge, especially the classics that played during Anderson’s time which would usually merit an “Oldies Night” where a tip of the hat would be offered, either in archived clips or stories from Anderson’s Ghoulardi run.
Skits remained, such as carry overs from the Houlihan days like "A Certain Ethnic..." and Dr. Ben Crazy, many of those including appearances from other known faces from TV-8, most notably the aforementioned legendary meteorologist Dick Goddard. It’s during this run where Chuck finally seems to be comfortable in his role in front of the camera. Also a focus of the show was attending local events throughout the TV-8 viewing area. Not limited to the sporting events like in the days of the Ghoulardi All-Stars, instead Big Chuck & Lil John showed up at many local festivals, including one in my hometown, the Ravenna Balloon-A-Fair. These visits certainly kept the visibility of the duo up while the only slight tweaks to the on-air broadcast underlined the attitude of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ And given their run from 1979 all the way to 2007, a massive 28-years, well, you have to admit that not only did it work, it continued to work extremely well for its audience.
But as I said, there was another evolutionary path, one blazed by Ron Sweed. Ron came to the attention of Ernie Anderson early in his Ghoulardi run, showing up to a taping in a gorilla suit. Anderson was quick to take him under wing and made Sweed a production assistant. From these beginnings would spring forth The Ghoul. Sweed’s on-air appearance was very much influenced by Anderson’s Ghoulardi and as such, he made it a point to get Anderson’s approval before going forward with the show. Although starting out in Cleveland, Sweed’s success came mainly from the Northwest Ohio (Toledo) and Southeast Michigan (Detroit) markets. While the show would occasionally leak back to its home in Northeast Ohio, it wouldn’t be as consistent as the output from WJW TV-8. The content certainly paralleled Anderson’s a bit better with firecrackers destroying model ships and aircraft, sound and video inserts into the films, especially the bad ones, and maintaining the beat lingo as well as some of the phrases Anderson had originated such as “Ova dey”, “Stay Sick” and “Turn Blue”. However, there were some differences. An oft-abused rubber frog, aptly named Froggy, and humor that was more in the pre-adolescent vein are the main differences and although mentioned a few times on Anderson’s recurring skit, Parma Place (a play on Peyton Place, a popular drama of the 60s), Sweed really hit the Cheez Whiz hard…in more ways than one, if you know what I mean and I think you do. And it’s evident in his performance. Anderson had this interesting mix of subdued rapidity: he could move through a joke quickly yet all the while still giving it a chance to breathe with an expertly timed pause. Sweed on the other hand threw a lot at you hard and fast, hence the above ‘Cheez-Whiz as Cocaine’ analogy.
In all fairness, I don’t quite have the familiarity with Sweed’s Ghoul as I do with the other subject of this article. I’ve grabbed some snippets from YouTube, just as I did with Ghoulardi, but while I did some research into Anderson (albeit just a one-hour bio and accompanying book), I’ve not looked into Sweed at the same level.
That said, albeit inconsistently, Sweed remained on the airwaves over the span of three decades, which is an impressive run, only falling short of Big Chuck’s span on Cleveland airwaves.
Just as Anderson begat Sweed, so too would Sweed spawn his own follow-up…although the transition wouldn’t be quite as smooth. Or a ‘transition’ at all really. Let me explain.
At the height of his popularity in 1982, Sweed hosted a “Ghoul Look-Alike” contest, the winner being young Keven Scarpino, who was even dubbed the ‘Son of Ghoul’. It was shortly after this that Scarpino, much as young Sweed did back in the heyday of Ghoulardi, would find work at a local television station, this time being Canton, Ohio, as a technician with their own Ghoulardi-inspired host…and of course found his way into some of the interstitial skits. Four years later, in 1986, the Son of Ghoul would ascend to his own show on the Canton-based channel. Unlike Anderson, Sweed welcomed his potential successor much in the same way as Chronos did in Greek mythology and filed a lawsuit to keep Scarpino’s character off the airwaves, claiming that the latter had ‘stolen’ the character from him.
It's this lawsuit that perhaps best illustrates the legacy of Ghoulari more than this entire article could. You see, the suit was dismissed, based on a judge’s ruling that ultimately boiled down to “Aren’t all horror hosts supposed to be like that?” Here we are, the late 80s at this point, and in spite of the lengthy runs of the more visible successors to Ghoulardi from Cleveland, Hoolihan & Big Chuck now Big Chuck & Lil John, it is indeed Ghoulardi that is the archetype that remains. Again it’s worth emphasizing that Anderson’s run only lasted three years, so to have permeated so deep into the local culture after such a short run remains impressive to this day!
Back to the story at hand however, the lawsuit truly had little in the way of merit. My friends and I would have Son of Ghoul on in the background during high school D&D sessions, so this is another instance where I’m familiar with the material and I must say, I think the only two things the hosts shared was the Anderson influence and the near-zero budget for their programs. Sweed’s set hewed closer to the Ghouldari sets of old while Scarpino opted for a stereotypically cheap looking castle dungeon set. Conversely, it felt like Scarpino’s humor fell more in line with Anderson’s, sometimes bombastic, sometimes subdued and a better sense of when to be one or the other or switch between the two. Sweed, as I mentioned above, was all bombast all the time. And while both hosts referred to their audience as 'Group’, as Anderson did, Scarpino stayed away from some of the other Ghoulardi-isms, such as “Ova Dey”, “Boom-booms”, “Knif”, “Stay sick”, “Turn blue” et cetera. While these phrases are certainly part of the tradition, they’re not to be used willy-nilly. In my research for this article, part of the reason these phrases worked so well isn’t the phrases themselves, but also the way they’re said, the voice they’re said in. With both Scarpino and Sweed using their natural speaking voices, these phrases just don’t work. But prior to, during and after his Ghoulardi gig, Anderson was a voice-actor. Well, we’d call him that now, back then, it was simply announcer. Regardless, he knew how to use his voice and create a character stemming from that sound alone. Neither of his successors really latched on to that. But the impression was that Scarpino kinda knew that and thus didn’t try to work the vernacular into his character, while Sweed didn’t know that and simply continued to slather his speech in the lingo hoping for the same impact.
To wrap on Son of Ghoul, I do have to say that his presentation style did harken back to Anderson’s, as well as what the big-wigs in Cleveland were doing: more laid back, seemingly sitting and watching the movie with you, cracking wise all the while. One of the things I recall most notably about Son of Ghoul were on-location episodes at some local event here or there in the Akron/Canton area. While the others did this as well on occasion, I have to admit that I have no rational reasoning for this, but it just felt like Son was better at this…certainly better than Sweed and maybe even slightly moreso that Big Chuck & Lil John. It just seemed like he was able to feed off the audience’s vibe better. But, again, that’s just my singular opinion with no tangible wheres or whys to support it.
What I did not know when I started writing this article was that a third evolutionary path had arisen. While Big Chuck and Lil John still make occasional TV appearances with specials and the yearly Ghoulardi-fest, a vacuum had emerged in Cleveland late night. And as any scientist will tell you, oft times in the words of Mr. Spock, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” In the closing act of our article here, we have to turn our attention to another Cleveland-area UHF station, WUAB-43 based in Euclid, a Cleveland suburb. While opting to not throw their hat in the late-night horror hosting ring, WUAB is not a stranger to hosted movies. Running from 1969 through 1989, with my childhood falling at the tail end of the run, Marty Sullivan’s SuperHost was like a clown version of Superman (only fitting given the Man of Steel’s origins!), baggy red and blue suit, a crest on the chest emblazoned with a bold H, a cape and a red nose. The show would always open with a mix of either Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy shorts, as well as original sketches, before leaning into, you guessed it, old monster movies and creature features, which were the staple of UHF TV back in the 80s.
Somewhere, a young Zachariah Durr was watching, telling his mother “I want that job.”
Another point of fact is that this was not WUAB’s only hosted movie show. Local disc-jockey, John Lanigan, would host a Monday through Friday “Prize Movie”, where instead of host segments, Lanigan would emcee short little games callers could participate in for cash and prizes. This is worth mentioning mainly to display that WUAB was no stranger to hosted content.
Fast-forward to Halloween, 2020, when the aforementioned Zachariah Durr, now an engineer at the station, achieved his life goal. WUAB, for the first time in nearly 30 years, was opting to create original hosted content and he, along with local freelance photographer Laura Wimbels would serve as show hosts. Like Ghoulardi before them, they too would opt for the old classic horror films and the B movies of the 50s and 60s, as clearly indicated in the title of the show: The Big Bad B-Movie Show. While no direct link to Anderson’s show is present, there are links to other, more famous, hosted shows…as the interstitial skits have a style more akin to Mystery Science Theater 3000 than anything Cleveland-brewed. The show however does not go into riffing during the film. The set up also tips its hat to MST3K. Though not isolated in a satellite, characters Leopold and Lenora are locked inside a movie vault and have been driven mad by the experience and now…they share their madness…with you! Another regional influence, Svenghoulie out of Chicago (and distributed nationally on MeTV), seems to have at least some sway on the humor and gags throughout the show as there seem to be some similarities. Being rooted in Cleveland, the hosts do maintain that there’s some Ghoulardi influence. So as to not neglect a pair of horror host icons, Wimbels certainly embraces the plunging necklines of both Vampira and Elvira and to great effect…if you know what I mean, and I think you do. In its first year, the show sat at an 8 PM time-slot, a little early for the typical horror hosting gigs, but, this time slot actually made a big impression on a demographic well known to endorse such hosted shows: prisoners! Much like Joe Bob Briggs’ Monstervision, TBBBMS has a fairly sizeable captive audience but in its second year, it was moved to a more traditional horror hosting time, 11 PM which sadly put the air time beyond ‘lights-out’.
It perhaps isn’t a coincidence that just as the COVID pandemic re-ignited the drive-in, so to did it re-invigorate the hosted horror show. A main motivation for starting TBBBMS, as stated by Wimbels was to bridge the isolation arising from the pandemic…and sure enough, health workers, those isolated from quarantine and yes, prisoners, all responded to that as well as all the isolated misfits that the Cleveland area has always had in abundance.
So…what’s the point of all this? Simple. One guy. Three years. This was enough to spawn a tradition that started in 1963 and continues to this day in 2022. That’s 59 years. Maybe there were hints that this is what was going to happen. Heck, the Cleveland Police reported that crime rates dropped to near-zero whenever Ghoulardi was on back in the day. But to cast a shadow this long with work that was both short-lived and, as stated many times by Anderson himself, not necessarily his best, the fact that even now the ghost of Ghoulardi still hangs over the shores of "beautiful Lake Erie" is quite impressive. And as long as people emigrate from the “best location in the nation”, whether they be famous such as Anderson himself or Drew Carey or lowly bloggers such as myself, that shadow grows. After all, there isn’t a member of the Mutant Family or the Horror Community that needs much encouragement to ‘Stay sick’!
Many thanks go to Dr. Phil Hoffman's 'Turn Blue: The Short Life of Ghoulardi' documentary and it's companion book, 'Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV's Wildest Ride' by Richard D. Heldenfels & Tom Feran as well as the many YouTubers that have provided clips of all the above shows I've talked about here. All this material proved invaluable for what could have been a much larger article!